Feng Shui: Life-changing or pseudoscience?

December 3rd, 2010 - By Katherine Marley, Medill News Service

Feng shui is an ancient Chinese system of aesthetics that some people believe will improve their lives. But others consider feng shui pseudoscience.

Common feng shui practices include arranging furniture so that one’s back is toward a wall, instilling a sense of protection and control and maximizing the amount of natural light in a home or office to remain connected with nature. Practitioners market feng shui to reduce stress and improve health and concentration.

Some people, like psychologist Nancy Molitor, public education coordinator of the Illinois Psychological Association, are very conscious of their environment and embrace certain of its practices without explicitly adopting feng shui. When Molitor set up her office in Wilmette, she became exceptionally aware of her surroundings. “I keep my office very linear and softly planned out to be very calming, using calm colors,” she said.

Molitor is thoughtful about the atmosphere in her office and wants it to be friendly and warm, but not cluttered. She said patients love artificial waterfalls in a psychologist’s office to block out noise in the waiting room. “They don’t notice it, but they notice it. They notice that it’s calm,” Molitor said.

And as a practicing clinical psychologist, she said she thinks there’s something to feng shui. While Molitor said there is no direct evidence linking it to behavioral health outcomes, she also said mindfulness—connecting the mind and body—is part of feng shui and the Eastern philosophy.

There is research that shows if you’re in a mindful state, that does seem to be related to lower blood pressure, fewer headaches, less tension and a sense of calmness and being at peace, she said.

It’s an indirect pathway. “If feng shui promotes mindfulness and calmness, there could be less tension, which could translate into better mental health,” she said. Molitor recently had a patient tell her, “There’s a zen like quality in your office that makes me feel better.”

Feng shui involves mind over matter. “It has a placebo effect, if people believe it’s going to have an impact, it may well have such an impact” according to Toby Israel, New Jersey based design psychologist.

But Joanne Vining, professor of environmental psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, would argue the placebo effect is its only effect. “There is no scientific evidence that feng shui has an effect,” Vining said via email. Despite her emotional “wish” that it would work, she said the lack of consistency among feng shui practitioners adds doubt to the effectiveness of the practice.

Supporting scientific evidence or not, practitioners swear by its ability to impact one’s life. Joan Kaufman, owner of Chicago Feng Shui, is a firm believer. “If you have a goal you can’t achieve, and are stuck in a rut, change your environment, that can change your life,” Kaufman said.

But it isn’t solely about changing the space. According to Molitor, “You have to change your attitude, it has to be a cognitive thing.” Although when under stress, Molitor said, one’s environment becomes more salient.

Kaufman suggests balancing the five elements—water, wood, fire, earth and metal—bringing things out of the subconscious into the conscious to reduce stress and improve concentration. She defines feng shui as the science of the person-place connection. It has to do with how people interact in a space, and no two people are the same.

Color, noise, texture, light, temperature and aroma are all stimuli that have an impact on emotional, logical, physiological, behavioral and unconscious dimensions, according to Nicolas Pierry, international feng shui consultant. Pierry holds a master’s in environmental psychology from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and he said this happens because the body and brain maintain a continuous dialogue and interact with the elements in one’s physical environment.

In environmental psychology the idea is to control them, use them in your favor. “If you want to lose weight don’t put red in your kitchen, red causes you to salivate, and makes you eat more,” Kaufman said.

Avoid bright colors in a study or office because they saturate you, and make you exhausted, Pierry said. But feng shui can be applied to more than just the color scheme in a workspace. It promotes a sense of order, leaving nothing to chance. Pierry said an orderly desktop will keep your mind in order and a clear mind facilitates better concentration.

Feng shui says to put future tasks on the right side of a desk, and move them to the left once they’re finished. “It’s the same way the brain works, right and left, future and past,” Pierry said.

Noise can be stressing in any space, he said. Sometimes there’s not enough isolation from neighbors, street noise, or in Molitor’s case, the waiting room. Pierry recommends low volume classical music or relaxing water to lower stress and become more focused. “You don’t have to believe in feng shui,” she said, “to notice it makes a difference.”

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